Political Peace in Jammu and Kashmir by Ashima Kaul

This article was originally published on Insight on Conflict, the leading online resource for local peacebuilding.

The 'Panchayat' elections were an exercise in grassroots democracy in Jammu and Kashmir. Intended to promote restore trust in politics and create a constituency for peace, the process as has led to dissatisfaction, anger and protest. Ashima Kaul, Insight on Conflict's Local Correspondent for Kashmir, explains.

Peacebuilding in conflict regions has a context. The context is the theatre of overt cycle of violence and new structures of oppression that emerge to choke people’s freedom. Peacebuilding therefore has to cut across the multiple layers of the conflict and divisive agendas of the various people involved and causes of the conflict to create constituencies of trust and deliverance. Peace therefore in this context becomes an expression of political freedom, justice, inclusion, representation, empowerment and accountability. All of these have to be protected, nurtured and secured for maximum gains.

Peacebuilding in the midst of violence is also about transforming fragile and vulnerable spaces into vibrant ones. Hence peacebuilding initiatives in regions and communities distraught by war and violence needs to anticipate any pitfalls and barriers, for those could further destroy the very reason for which they were initiated. The stakes for peace are too high for any casual attitudes. Careless beginnings with foggy directions can have lethal backlash. The Panchayat – local self governance election at the village level in Jammu and Kashmir is a case in point.

The need to restore trust in politics

Decades of protracted violence and strife in Jammu and Kashmir had scarred and eroded its political institutions and democratic functioning. The breakdown of political structures, including relationship between people and those who represent them, has not only isolated the people but also, most dangerously, destroyed their trust in the political system and institutions of power.

People, especially those in rural and far flung areas felt alienated from the various processes associated with the recovery, rehabilitation and rebuilding. Sensing this ‘distrust and distance’ as major fallout of the conflict, efforts were made to restore people’s confidence, most importantly to regain their trust in the political processes and democratic institution through the ballot.

In 2002 the slogan ballot vs. bullet captured the sentiments and sensibilities of the people. Hence prior to the first phase of the elections that September, in spite of the fact that 250 political activists and probable candidates were killed, almost 44 % people came out to vote.

What made these elections different was that nearly all political parties, independent candidates, non-governmental groups, human rights activists, media (both domestic and foreign) and most importantly, the international community, appreciated the credibility of the elections and the results that followed it.

“They were free and fair”, reported the media. This was significant in the light of the rigged election in 1989 that had led to the ‘armed struggle’, followed with proliferation of hundreds of militant groups, entry of foreign terrorist organisations and militarisation of Jammu and Kashmir.

Electoral engagement in 2002 brought in a new fervor and energy setting in motion a process which slowly started filling the political vacuum. The 2008 election was another benchmark. Once again people (60.5%) came out of their homes to polling booths rejecting violence as a creed.

Grassroots democracy in Jammu and Kashmir

This popular mandate was not only was an expression of Kashmiri people’s overwhelming desire for peace but a political legitimacy over separatist politics. Therefore to safeguard, maintain and percolate this ‘political victory and freedom’ to the grassroots was a wise political move even though the atmosphere was charged with prior 2008 and 2010 stone pelting, street violence and demonstrations. The fervour created by Panchayat election transformed the overall pensive mood in the Valley and elsewhere.

“The panchayat election was a watershed. We thought we will bring development to our villages. This would have been the single largest mechanism for peace and I was so proud of being a frontrunner to script new power politics in our state” says a dejected Ghulam Mohammad Mir. Sarpanch of Panchayat halqa Delina C which has 7000 votes, Mir adds, “The people of my village were with me. Today the same people feel I have betrayed them. The government failed us and our trust in them”. Mir is contemplating to resign.

From 13 April to 27 June 2011, village level panchayat elections were held for the first time in 33 years. Grassroots democracy was deemed to be the only potent ‘political weapon’ to counter negative conditions created by violence and terror. On 13 April itself, in the first phase of the election 78% voters had cast their vote across five blocks in Kashmir and three in Jammu. By bringing democracy to the doorsteps of people, the government had stirred the imagination of the people.

“This is the first real Panchayat election in the state in 33 years, the last one in 2001 was only on paper, half the seats remained empty,” Chief Minister Omar Abdulla had tweeted. “This would mean more power and money to the villages. We will now script our own development story’, said a voter.

However the first serious error by the Chief Minster was to undermine this courageous peacebuilding initiative as an ‘administrative exercise’. Of course the political resolution of ‘Kashmir issue’ remains and cannot be dismissed or pushed under the carpet but until that happens constructive peacebuilding processes for the well-being of the people have to put in place.

True, the Panchayat election is essentially administrative in nature but in the Jammu and Kashmir they hold the promise of challenging those who are against peace and stability, and allowing genuine political voices to emerge. Therefore internal democratic processes may not be directly influential in resolution of the conflict, but self governance and local autonomy can definitely empower public voices for a peaceful resolution.

Managing the high expectations of both the elected representatives and the people was essential. However much hype was created about the elections. The result is a bitter log jam, administrative confusion and disenchantment. These drawbacks perhaps would have had a different spin in any other state of India, but in Jammu and Kashmir complacency can prove to be counterproductive, even dangerous.

Widespread dissatisfaction and growing protest

However after 18 months, the process which was stretched over 17 phases, with 5.07 million voters electing a total of 4,130 Sarpanchs (village heads) and 29,719 Panchs (village representatives) stands discredited and the peacebuilding exercise which had ‘democracy and trust building’ as its core values is struggling to survive. Whose failure is it?

Shafiq Mir, Sarpanch from Poshana Halqa in border district of Poonch in the Jammu Division is unforgiving in his stance towards the government. “We have been made the sitting ducks”, he says. “We take the wrath of both people and militants. The people on one side demand that we deliver, the militants on the other side shoot us. The government neither gives us power nor protection”, admonishes Mir.

In February Sarpanchs and Panchs came together under a joint banner Jammu and Kashmir Panchayat Conference to press their demands for decentralization of power and implementation of 73rd Amendment of the Indian Constitution which guarantees full power to the village functionaries. The government argument is that this would erode the State’s autonomy. It has, however, also chosen not to deliver on promised State legislation. Besides an effective three tier system of governance which required constitution of block and district panchayat councils is still awaited.

“The member of the legislative assembly has all the power and he does not want to give it away to us. The money that comes for rural development is never spent. There is corruption involved. It is a mafia. The truth is no political party is interested in devolution of power and resources”, says a disillusioned Ghulam Rasool Lalla of Panchayat Jahama in Baramulla, North Kashmir. Lalla’s sentiments are shared by scores of other Sarpanchs across the state. Perhaps the most dejected are the women panchs.

Militant organisations threaten process

Not only the elected representatives are bitter and angry, they are vulnerable to militant threats and attacks. Posters by militant groups asking Sarpanchs and Panchs to resign have been reported in the media. Over 500 Panchs and Sarpanchs have resigned in South Kashmir districts of Shopian, Kulgam, Pulwama and North Kashmir district of Baramulla after militants killed 11 Panchs and Sarpanchs since last year.

The recent killings of Sarpanch Ghulam Mohammad Yatoo of Palhalan village on 12 September and Deputy Sarpanch Mohammad Shafi Teli, the Deputy Sarpanch of Nowpora Jageer area of Kreeri Sopore in Baramulla District on 23 September has triggered a fresh spurt in resignations. These developments have the potential to have seismic consequences. Trust is the corner stone of any peacebuilding initiative stands to be broken irreparably. Immediate corrective steps need to be taken.

A constituency for peace

The key impact of the panchayat elections has been the rebirth of a huge constituency of political class at the grassroots which has biggest stake in building peace. ‘There is a need to create and facilitate respectful communication between the political leadership and the people’, says Dr. Sumona Dasgupta, senior researcher with Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA).

Preliminary findings from her in a participatory field research, “The Role of Governance in the Resolution of Socioeconomic and Political Conflict in India and Europe” by European Commission conducted in 2011 to understand the current governance programmes and actors to address conflicts and analyze the discourses around governance initiatives in Jammu and Kashmir, reveal that communication gap and official disdain for ‘illiterate representatives’ has led to huge expectation and frustration. ‘Conversations have to be initiated between stakeholders to address the communication gap and build trust deficit’, adds Dr. Dasgupta.

The anti-democracy forces will try their best to dig the last nail in the democratic process but power to elected representatives will ensure that the bastions of peace are guarded by none other than the people who elected them. Peace is always built on trust and it is the most fragile ‘political freedom’ to be protected for future resolution of the conflict.

This article was originally published on Insight on Conflict, the leading online resource for local peacebuilding.



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